The Elders


The making of The Elders' documentary

During their visit to the divided island of Cyprus in December 2009, the Elders filmed a documentary about the dedicated Cypriots working to locate and identify the remains of the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who were killed in the 1960s and 1970s. These photographs tell the story behind the film.

During their visit to the divided island of Cyprus in December 2009, the Elders filmed a documentary about the search for the remains of thousands of missing persons.

“Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future” follows Elders Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu on a journey with four Cypriot teenagers from both north and south. Michael (16), Tayfun (16), Idil (17) and Thalia (17) were brought together by the Cyprus Friendship Programme, which promotes trust and understanding between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

The group travelled around Cyprus to meet the scientific teams working to find the remains of thousands of people killed during conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s.

The task of finding and identifying the remains of those who were killed is carried out by the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP). Its archeological and forensic teams are bi-communal, composed of both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

In the film, the students and Elders visit an exhumation site at Strovolos, south of the UN buffer zone. Here, CMP archaeologist Giannis Ioannou explains that the dig team is searching an old well after receiving information that it might contain human remains.

Archbishop Tutu asks Giannis whether the job gives him bad dreams. “Not really,” he replies, “because we see this as being very positive work. It’s a very good thing we do for our country.”

At the site, the initial mechanical excavation is followed by the painstaking process of searching for human remains by hand. The team pump out water from the ground, remove bucket loads of mud, and then sieve the mud to search for bones.

Christiana Zinonos, pictured here, is another CMP scientist working at the exhumation site.

Like many young people on the island, she has missing persons in her own family who have not yet been found. She tries not to let this affect her work. “I’m sometimes emotional,” she tells the students. “But I know that I have to do it.”

On the way to the first exhumation site, Michael tells the Elders that 16 members of his family disappeared during the war. 15 were found dead, but one of them has still not been found. He asks the Elders, “How do people get over that?”

Archbishop Tutu considers his question and says he is amazed at people’s capacity to forgive those who have wronged them.

Lakhdar Brahimi replies that he thinks differently about forgiveness. “If somebody killed my son, I would not forgive him or her,” he says. “But I think that with time, I realise that the way to honour my child is not by killing… I will not forget, I will not forgive – but I will not kill.”

For President Carter, the work of the CMP has a clear message – that both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots suffered horribly. It doesn’t help, he says, to blame the other side.

Thalia agrees, describing how the culture of blame continues to affect her generation of Cypriots. “We’re suffering because of the mistakes of the past,” she says. “We don’t want our generation to repeat these mistakes.”

The CMP’s Hazar Kaba shows the students and the Elders around another exhumation site at Kyrenia, north of the UN buffer zone.

In 2007 they found the remains of 38 missing persons at this site. They have received further information that other missing persons may be buried there too. This information can come in many forms, from local people, from witnesses to the killing, or even from the perpetrators themselves.

“An important point is that we are not dealing with who killed or how they killed,” Hazar told the group. “We want to recover the missing persons and give them back to their families.”

At Kyrenia – as at all CMP field sites and laboratories – teams of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot scientists work together at every stage of the process.“We are proof,” Hazar told the group, “that the two different ethnic groups on this island – Cypriots, we say – can work together. Building up the future is in our own hands. It should be like this.”

At the CMP Forensic Laboratory, a team of scientists carries out the painstaking work of reconstructing and identifying the remains.Popi Chrysostomou, Head of the Laboratory, describes to the students and the Elders how the scientists had worked to identify the remains of 40 people, from around 15,000 bones, bone fragments and teeth.The process can take anything from two or three days to several months.

In the final stages of identification, the scientists record any evidence of injuries that would have caused the person’s death. They inform the families of anything they discover – for example, whether their relative was killed by a bullet, or by blunt force.

“The families have the opportunity to come here and discuss the procedures. At that stage,” said Popi, “we feel rewarded for what we do, emotionally.”

The students were extremely moved by the visit. “I don’t want this to happen to us,” Thalia tells the other students. “I don’t want this to happen again.”

The Elders and the four students meet Veli Beidoğlu, a Turkish Cypriot, and Spyros Hadjinicolaou, a Greek Cypriot, both of whom lost their fathers during the conflict.

After many years, their fathers’ remains were recovered by the CMP and returned to their families – something Veli and Spyros never expected to happen.

Seeing his father’s bones, Spyros says, was a form of closure, but it also made him angry. “It’s something that personally, I still cannot process – because it’s murder.”

The two men are members of a bi-communal initiative of relatives of missing persons, and hope that their common loss can form the foundation of a shared, peaceful future.

However, Veli cautions the students against painting a rosy picture. “Not all families, not all relatives, are like Spyros and I. There are a lot of people who will not even look at each other.” Trust, he says, is key to developing a shared understanding of the past.

The film was completed in late 2010 and will be shown on Cypriot television this month. The Elders hope that the film we be helpful in encouraging the younger generation to talk about important issues of memory and history.

For the four students, making the film changed not only how they understand the past, but also its relationship with the island’s future. “I think I realise through this,” said Thalia, “that the book of the past cannot close if you don’t find out what’s in it.”

The Elders were impressed by the bond they saw develop between the students. For Archbishop Tutu, their acceptance of one another and their mutual understanding seemed to be “an image of what, in fact, is possible for this country.”

Photos: Jeff Moore / The Elders


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